Puffy AmiYumi is a pop/rock duo from Japan. I first heard them on the Japan For Sale Vol. 2 album back when I was a volunteer at a college radio station. I liked what I heard, so I made sure to give their next release (Nice.) a few spins when it arrived at the station. That one made me a fan, and eventually I bought my own copy.
The band is called Puffy in Japan, but when they started making inroads into the American music scene, they added on a combination of their own names so as not to be confused with the other Puffy. Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura were brought together in 1995 by talent agencies and currently they have an animated series on the Cartoon Network (Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi). The commercialized nature of the band should make me not like them, much in the way that I do not care for American Idol or the Backstreet Boys, but somehow this particular incarnation of the music industry’s pre-fabricated band formula does not make me want to retch every time I hear it. Maybe the Japanese know how to do it better.
Listening to Puffy AmiYumi always puts me in a good mood. They never fail to deliver just the right mixture of the pop/rock formula that makes this child of the late 70s and 80s happy. Their latest album Splurge! continues with the Jpop/rock goodness.
The first song (“Call Me What You Like”) is an open invitation to rock and roll fans to listen to the band because, as they put it,
Ooh ooh we ain’t no country girls
Ooh ooh we ain’t no urban girls (yeah!)
Ooh ooh we ain’t no harujuku girls (b-a-n-a-n-a-s)
Ooh ooh we’re just straight up rock ‘n roll
I particularly like the call out poking fun at Gwen Stefani, although I would not call the music straight up rock and roll. Then again, maybe that is what I find so appealing about the band. On the surface it seems very pop, but the driving force behind each song is rock and roll drums and guitar.
They play around with genres. It is hard to peg them down as this or that. Pop/rock covers the generic, but on Splurge! they also flirt with elements of classic rock ‘n roll (“Etude”), rockabilly surf (“Go Baby Power Now”), and even some Latin rock (“Mole”).
Some of the songs on Splurge! are in English, but most of the album is in Japanese. I do not know any Japanese words, but that has not diminished my enjoyment. Maybe it is best that I do not understand the lyrics. The English songs tend to be sappy teen love tunes (“Tokyo I’m on my way – I’m going to be in love”). The teen image of Puffy AmiYumi is perpetuated in their presentation. I find it rather amusing since they are both in their early 30s. I suspect that youth sells in Japan much the way sex sells in America.
The most notable exception to the teen love tunes motif is “Radio Tokyo.” The song seems to be a harsh criticism of radio or music managment and promotion in Tokyo, although it has a universal significance as well. Corporate music heads decide what is hip and the artists are left swinging in the wind. “Someone had a bad day / So they sell your soul on eBay / With an 8×10, autographed in pen.” Given that Puffy-mania in Japan is huge, it is no surprise that the band has experienced the darker side of the music industry.
The final two tracks on the US release are remixes of previously released songs. “Friends Forever” is the English-language version of “Invisible Tomorrow,” which was originally released on the album Nice. The English lyrics were written for the written for the live action Scooby Doo Movie, Monster Unleashed. “Invisible Tomorrow” is my favorite Puffy AmiYumi song, but the lyrics to “Friends Forever” have a little too much of the “best friends 4-evah” tweeny kind of attitude. This is not helped at all by the synthy and broken remix done by Fickle.
The other remix is the ubiquitous “Teen Titans Theme.” The song has been on the last three albums and was probably their best known song in the United States prior to their own Cartoon Network show. The remix by Japanese electronica master Hayashi of the Polysics turns this pop/rock cartoon theme song into a 1960′s sci-fi spy thriller à la James Bond or The Avengers. It is a refreshing change for a song I have heard far too many times.
The vocals and instrumentation are what I really like about Puffy AmiYumi. Most of the time Ami and Yumi are singing in unison, creating a uniquely unified vocal sound. Occasionally they throw in a little harmony, but it sounds like one person harmonizing with herself. The song structures and arrangements are perfect pop/rock compositions. I can’t help but jump around with glee every time a Puffy AmiYumi song comes up on shuffle.
If you are looking to test the Japanese pop/rock waters, I cannot think of a better album to get you started than Puffy AmiYumi’s Splurge!.
addendum: I’ve been told that the Japanese songs are more mature than what Puffy has done in the past. They seem to be shifting from teenybopper to adult. Their popularity in Japan is waining as a result, but as one member of the Tofu Records forums wrote, “Japan is pretty notorious for spitting out female artists as soon as they reach around the age of 25.”